Carbonite CEO Apologizes for Planted Amazon Reviews, But Bristles at Critics

Boston-based Carbonite, whose online backup service is the main competitor for Decho’s Mozy, has gotten some good publicity over the last few months for its tongue-in-cheek promotions on Jimmy Kimmel Live and other TV and radio programs. But the company is taking a public relations hit this week over a recently uncovered case of reviews planted on Amazon by Carbonite employees who didn’t identify themselves as such. The reviews were published three years ago—and it’s just one of many cases of people trying to game Amazon’s customer reviews—but they’ve attracted widespread publicity this week thanks to a blogger whose criticisms of Carbonite were highlighted Tuesday by New York Times technology reporter and columnist David Pogue.

I called Carbonite CEO David Friend yesterday to get his company’s side of the story. He didn’t try to spin or shift blame for the episode: He says it was “totally wrong” for Carbonite staffers Swami Kumaresan and Jonathan Freidin to post positive reviews of Carbonite’s service on Amazon without making it clear that they were Carbonite employees.

Carbonite CEO David Friend“We apologize for it,” says Friend, who also wrote to Pogue after Tuesday’s post, apologizing to Amazon visitors who may have been misled by the reviews. “We pulled the things down the day we found out about them,” he says.

The Amazon case was an isolated incident, Friend says. “Some people are alleging that this is a pattern of behavior,” Friend says. “It isn’t. It was just one thing that happened back when Carbonite had eight employees and there were a bunch of young guys who didn’t know any better…This was just two overenthusiastic employees who decided to post these things on their own. To be honest they thought it was cool.”

Since January of 2007, he says, Carbonite has had a policy requiring anyone affiliated with the company to disclose that relationship whenever they contribute to blogs or review sites. He says there will be no disciplinary action against Kumaresan or Freidin, since they published the reviews before the policy was put in place. “I’m not going to punish somebody for something they did three years ago,” he says. “Everyone has been well aware of the policy since it was put in place. Had anyone violated the policy since 2007, they would have been in trouble, but there have been no infractions since then.”

But while Friend is apologetic, he’s also a bit miffed about Carbonite’s treatment in the blogosphere over the past couple of days.

The controversy got rolling on Sunday when a blogger and former Carbonite customer using the pseudonym “Bruce Goldensteinberg” published a long post describing his frustrations obtaining technical support from the company. Goldensteinberg wrote that in early 2008, after experiencing a computer crash and then running into problems restoring his data from Carbonite’s backup version, he spent “literally hours on the phone” with customer service representatives and a member of Carbonite’s sales department. (He had opted not to pay Carbonite’s $19.95 fee for priority support—i.e., immediate access to telephone representatives.) Eventually, he was able to restore some of his data, and “after much complaining” he was offered a refund worth a year’s subscription, which he accepted.

In a search later to see whether other people had experienced similar frustrations, Goldensteinberg writes, he found the Amazon reviews by Kumaresan and Freidin. He became suspicious about the sources of the reviews, and discovered through more searches that both men work at Carbonite. The remainder of his post details his detective work and criticizes Carbonite’s actions as “dishonorable,” “unscrupulous,” and “brazen.”

Quite apart from the matter of the Amazon reviews—the impropriety of which Friend does not dispute—I wanted to know whether Friend thought Goldensteinberg had a legitimate beef with Carbonite’s custom service department.

He did not think so. “It says right on our website that we do not provide free telephone support,” Friend says. “If you want to talk to Carbonite for free, you can use text chat or e-mail. This guy called up and was told that the premium telephone service is $20—which is a lot cheaper than [telephone service at] Dell or Microsoft.” The conversation between Goldensteinberg and Carbonite’s representatives became heated, Friend says. “We finally ended up giving him an hour of help. And there was nothing wrong with Carbonite—all of the things were his issues. He has just never gotten over that.”

I e-mailed Goldensteinberg Wednesday afternoon asking for a response to Friend’s comment. Goldensteinberg wrote back: “Was the customer service experience with Carbonite great? Not at all. It was terrible. But I wouldn’t have gone to David Pogue, and he surely wouldn’t have written about this issue if the only thing I had to write about was bad customer service. Honestly, I only included the part in my review about the lousy customer service as a background to how I discovered the fake reviews on Amazon. Any attempt to divert attention from the main issue here…is a red herring.”

Indeed, the whole matter might have ended with Goldensteinberg’s post, if the blogger hadn’t contacted Pogue. The famed columnist wrote in his own blog “Pogue’s Posts” on Tuesday that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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